WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Monday that he hasn't seen "any strong, hard evidence" to link Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaida terrorists who staged the Sept. 11 attacks, a more direct statement than he has made on the subject before.
Rumsfeld's comments came as a new USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll found that 42 percent of those surveyed thought the former Iraqi leader was involved in the attacks on New York City and Washington. In response to another question, 32 percent said they thought Saddam had personally planned them.
The independent commission that investigated 9/11 concluded in June that there was "no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaida cooperated on attacks against the United States." The panel also said "contacts" between al-Qaida and Iraq "do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship."
Administration officials have sent mixed messages on the subject.
Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney said Saddam had "long-established ties" to al-Qaida.
On Monday, Rumsfeld answered a question about purported links in an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York only after there were catcalls from the audience when he said he wouldn't respond. Rumsfeld said there were "differences in the intelligence community" about the relationship between Saddam and al-Qaida. He said he has "seen that answer migrate in the intelligence community in a lot of amazing ways."
Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Rumsfeld described evidence of cooperation between al-Qaida and Saddam.
The issue of a link between al-Qaida and Saddam is part of the assessment of whether the invasion of Iraq is an integral part of the war on terrorism, as Bush says, or a diversion from the war on terror, as Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry says.
The public is split about that. In the survey, 50 percent called the Iraqi invasion part of the war on terrorism; 47 percent said it was an entirely separate military action. The poll of 1,016 adults, taken Friday through Sunday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Democrats accuse Cheney and others of overstating evidence of a tie to bolster their justification for the Iraqi war. Susan Rice, a foreign policy adviser to Kerry, told reporters Monday that Cheney may be pressed at the vice presidential debate in Cleveland tonight on why he continues to say a link existed.
At their debate Thursday, Kerry said Bush shifted resources from the search for Osama bin Laden to attack Iraq. "Saddam Hussein didn't attack us," Kerry said. "Osama bin Laden attacked us." Bush replied with obvious irritation, "First of all, of course I know that Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that."